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Identity (cross blogged from

Who am I? What am I? What makes me who and what I am? How much of who or what we are is determined by our genes, how much by the way we are brought up? How do we change over time? Which part of us is our culture, which is our ethnicity, our citizenship?

When you type 'identity' into wikipedia, you get loads of choices as they say Identity may refer to:
  • Philosophical topics

  • Personal conception and expression

  • Specifications of persons

  • Group expression and affiliation

  • Mathematics

  • Business

  • Computer science

  • Culture and the arts

  • etc.
How did I get started on this topic? In New Zealand a higher percentage of Maori children and children from Pasifika families underachieve than children from other ethnicity. The Ministry of Education has put special emphasis on the achievement of these ethnic groups. There is a very interesting discussion on the Virtual Learning Network, VLN, here about Maori learners - what makes them Maori, how do we define success and what makes them want to be successful.

I am not Maori, I have taught a lot of Maori children though. Not being Maori limits my credibility in some people's opinion. There are some wonderful smart people out there that have lots of valuable insights, e.g. Prof. Russell Bishop. I have also been very impressed by some of Hana O'Regan's comments; she explained at a workshop in Waitangi "Working with Maori" (17 October 2012) the educational view of Maori students being practical and hands-on from a historical perspective where in the early 20th century the ruling class (non-Maori) were adamant to keep Maori in their place by directing them through their schooling to menial jobs; before this New Zealand had a rich Maori academia. Another point she made I have been pondering is racial stereotypes We all hold some stereotypes; for example I follow the blog of a very creative woman in Australia - her day job is a librarian, which stereo-typically is not really someone very creative (at least in my view). Now if I pride myself on not holding racial stereotypes, does the other person know this or do they think I do hold a racial stereotype about them?

I don't want to avoid the debate of what it means to be Maori, or what success for Maori looks like, but I want to focus on sth. I know a lit bit more about - immigrants. My husband and I both hail from the same small town in Germany. His family was well established there for several generations while my parents moved their in the 70s - which means they have always remained newcomers and never quite become locals. Husband and I moved to New Zealand in the 90s and started our family here. Our three sons, all compulsory school age, are entitled to both the German and the New Zealand passports. All three have a fair to good understanding of the German language, though English is definitely their first language and their preferred way of communication. They see themselves as Kiwi boys - Pakeha New Zealanders. As a parent, I always classed myself as 'European' or 'Other - German' (more on this further down). In our home we try to keep up some of the German traditions, incl. food items, the way I make (or don't make lol) their beds, when and how we celebrate Christmas etc. Are they truly Kiwi? Are they truly German - their genes certainly are? Are they their own unique mixture of both?

For me personally there is an additional twist to this. I have been born and grown up in Germany. When you hear me talk, you can hear my German accent. Yet, by passport I am now a New Zealander and only a New Zealander as the German government in their wisdom limits German citizens to one citizenship unless you jump through a lot of hoops (which husband has done - he now has both passports). Am I any less German than him? Am I less German than my sons who have not been to Germany before? None of us five are 'good Germans' I suppose as a good German would not dream of emigrating and taking up other citizenships lol - there's another stereotype for you!

Right now I describe myself as a Pakeha New Zealander who grew up in Germany. Yet there are many other descriptions of my identity according to time, place, context: Daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, educator, neighbour, friend, quilter, blogger, definitely not a good housekeeper!

What impact does this have on my work as educator? I believe (at this point in time) that:
  • We all have multiple identities, depending on time, place and context.
  • We are all a product of our heritage, our upbringing, our education, the context we live in.
  • We are all unique, we are all important, we are all capable of stepping beyond stereotypes
  • I want to treat all learners I work with - children and adults - with respect for their identity, support them in their search for their identity, affirm them in their identity.
Can this translate to work with Maori and Pasifika students? I certainly think so, because 'One size fits one - we are all unique!' but I am not done pondering this topic further...

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Comment by Pascale Hyboud-Peron on March 4, 2013 at 18:11

I have been thinking about this also very recently Monika!  I am French, I have lived in NZ 15 years,  my partner is pakeha from way back, I could have both passports, French and NZ, when I get around to applying again for citizenship. I think I will always identify as French even though when I go back to France (fairly regularly) I realise that I have never had a strong sense of "being French".

I have been a  teacher of French in NZ and in England, and I at times work with Language teachers here now. Learning Languages area of the NZC rest on two strands to achieve Communication: Language Competence and Intercultural Competence.  I have been asking myself (and colleagues!) lots of questions here about Intercultural Competence and Cultural Competence as it is intended in Aotearoa: does the former inform, complement the latter or vice versa? How Language teachers "translate this to work with Maori and Pasifika students"?  Is it natural (or not?) to try to draw some common things between the sets of competencies? I asked the experts and investigated the tools at my disposal to try to move my thoughts along. 

As Hazel says in her comment, I now know that all of what I do is somehow culturally biased, beyond the food I eat and the music I remember from my teenages. To be aware of this may be a first step towards inclusiveness. And another may be, as teachers, to model the curiosity, interest in others' cultures, traditions, arts, language,  that we would like to see all students develop, alongside developing a stronger sense of who they are or where they come from themselves and the same curiosity about it?

Hum... Thank you for posting Monika, I am now mixing your questions with mine: entering in this conversation is  definitely a way of pushing my boat out!

Comment by Hazel Owen on March 4, 2013 at 13:20

Here is a different take on identity.., in this talk Bryan Stevenson encapsulates the notion that our sense of self - our identity - is in part fuelled by the convictions in our heart. And, the identity we put 'out there' influences how we interact with the world. He also speaks of collective identity.

Comment by Hazel Owen on March 3, 2013 at 10:47
This is a fascinating subject. As an immigrant myself, who has spent time in a variety of countries I often find myself wishing I had more of a sense of who I am...and where I am 'from'. Sure, I am a product of the culture I grew up in, although subsequent travel and experiences have forced me to re- think my vales, and often, my prejudices. I wish I knew my whakapapa; it feels like a 'lack' somehow, especially when I spend time as I had the privilege to do last week, with folk who are immersed in their language and culture...although I don't fool myself that their sense of culture and self has come easily.

Something New Zealand has given John and me is a strong feeling of rootedness...of connection with the land, and the community up on the Purerua Peninsula where we spend much of our time (we're regenerating bush, and see ourselves as temporary custodians of a beautiful spot).

When push comes to shove I English? I don't feel English. Am I kiwi? I like to fool myself that I am but then someone will say 'is at an English accent?' :) And, on the other side, speaking to English friends, they always remark about the kiwi accent. So, if culture is both tangible and intangible elements, I'd have to say I am a mash-up!! A product of many places, and many cultures, and of all the people I have spent time with.

So, thinking about the learners and colleagues with whom we work, maybe something we have to do is to not generalise, as you are saying - and something to aim for is inclusiveness. And in the process also recognise overtly that anything we do will be culturally biased by our own beliefs and values. We also, as educators, need to put ourselves in situations where we feel vulnerable, and uncomfortable culturally. We need to push the boat out and take risks, which is what we ask our learners to do every day (both children and adults!). Only then, I feel, can we start to figure out who we are, and be in a position to be truly culturally responsive...and culturally intelligent :) Awesome post. Thank you.

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